Roller Derby is back. An organic rebirth of this predominately women's sport has brought derby to hundreds of cities across North America and around the world. It's full-contact, it's fast, it's fun, and chances are it's somewhere near where you live.
I am not a sports photographer, but I am a huge derby fan. Having photographed a few local bouts, here is what I have learned about shooting derby.
1. Talk to the Refs. You want good shots, but you don't want to be in anyone's way to get them. How will you know where you can work?
Ask the people in charge. In advance of the bout, contact the event coordinators to obtain permission and details about where in the arena you will be allowed to operate. Arrive early on bout day, before the officials get too busy, and double-check your locations and your plans for using flash with the head referee. The refs call the shots, their conditions may change over the course of the bout. If you'd like to be allowed back, follow their instructions at all times.
The areas where photographers are permitted vary widely among venues. At smaller events you may be privileged to shoot from nearly anywhere, including the coveted inner circle. At the other extreme, national tournaments will have so many photographers- some with the league, some with the teams, some with local media- that each is restricted to a single reserved trackside spot. Some events do not allow spectators to bring SLR cameras into the venue without permission. Plan ahead.
2. Learn the Game. Derby is fast and unpredictable. Knowing where to aim your gear requires solid knowledge of the sport. So read the rules, and if you have never been to a bout, visit the Derby News Network for a preview.
3. Fast Women, Fast Lenses. Roller derby usually takes place indoors at night. Even the best venues are dimly lit. Without many photons to work with, you'll need lenses fast enough for 1/125 second exposures of athletes speeding through the darkness. And by fast, I mean f/2.8 or less. The f/5 zoom kit lens that shipped with your entry-level SLR might work for snapping shots of skaters sitting on the bench, but not much more.
Lenses recommended by derby photographers generally span the 24-135mm range at f/2.8 or less; for example, Canon's 24-70mm f/2.8L. These optics do not come cheaply.
If you must shoot with slow lenses, one strategy is to pan the camera with the action. If done correctly, panning will blur the background but leave the skaters relatively crisp. I often take a few of these anyway, just to provide variety and convey a sense of speed.
4. To Strobe or not to Strobe. You can boost available light with flash if the officials allow it. On camera-flash is easiest, but that lighting can look a bit flat and, if excessive, risks momentarily blinding the athletes. Not good. Mounting external radio-fired strobes elsewhere in the arena opens a world of possibilities. Not just for freezing the action. Artfully placed strobes can yield dramatic images.
5. ISO, ISO, ISO. Improvements in sensor design and noise-reduction algorithms have made ISO 1600 and ISO 3200 more acceptable than they were even three years ago. If you've got a newer camera, don't be afraid of dialing up to shockingly high ISOs to compensate for shutter speeds above 1/125. You are picking the lesser of two evils; motion blur ruins a great many more shots than sensor noise.
6. Pick your Angle. There is no better way to make a skater look strong and impressive than to shoot from the floor looking up. Of course, I'm also a fan of the "Derby Mural", a tight pack photographed with a longer lens from a distance. Don't just point the camera and shoot. Think about the aesthetics of how your position affects the photos.
7. Focus ahead of time. Even the best lenses and cameras struggle to autofocus on fast action in low light. I've found results more reliable when I select a patch of floor, pre-focus on it, and shoot when skaters pass into the focal plane.
8. Shoot the Action, or Shoot the Event? Roller Derby photographers generally fall into two camps. First are sports photographers who concentrate on the athletes. Their portfolios are filled with crisp, clean shots of the skaters. Second are the photojournalists who focus the the entire spectacle- capturing not just the athletes but drama in the stands, discussions among the referees, quiet moments on the bench. Unless you are on assignment for a particular purpose, you may as well let your own style shine.
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